Writing Stories to Seek Answers to Life’s Thorny Questions

From Writers Digest:

Write what you know. As a novelist, I’d argue that adage is bad advice. None of the 30-plus romance and romantic suspense novels I’ve written over the last 15 years would’ve been possible if I’d abided by it. I’ve never been Amish. I’ve never been stalked by a serial killer. I have, however, been diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. For the past eight years I’ve been living with a terminal disease. It’s a club to which no one wants to belong, and the members can’t leave (only expire). It’s been a long season of fear, anxiety, anger, despair, and loss of faith, but also memories made, joy, peace, silliness, laughter, faith increased, and even hope.

The statistics for late-stage ovarian cancer are grim. Less than 20 percent of women diagnosed at stage 4 live past five years. It’s the most deadly gynecological cancer. Yet here I am. I’ve survived my expiration date. Why? That’s the big question that haunts me. Why me and not Anna Dewdney, who wrote the children’s picture book series Llama Llama my kids loved growing up? Why me and not the woman sitting in the next pew at church?

I’ve read that writing stories is one way we seek answers to questions that otherwise seem impossible to resolve. I decided to write a novel exploring the journey of two sisters—one an oncologist and the other a kindergarten teacher diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Let them figure out whether there’s some hidden meaning I’m supposed to find in this grueling marathon. The Year of Goodbyes and Hellos was the easiest and hardest novel I’ve ever written. The first draft of the 110,000-word tome took about eight months. The words poured out. I couldn’t write fast enough.

It helped that I’d already done the technical research in the form of seven years of CT scans, PET scans, lab work, surgery, oncology appointments, literally hundreds of hours spent in cancer clinics and infusion rooms, and hundreds of hours spent poring over the latest research into new treatments and clinical trials. I speak the language. I have a storehouse of memories of healthcare workers, including doctors, nurses, medical assistants, technicians, and admin staff, ranging from eccentric and wonderful to downright mean. My Russian oncologist with her garden and her crazy dog stories is my favorite.

I used this on-the-job training to get the technical details right. That turned out to be the easy part. Taking out the memories and holding them up to the light proved to be much harder. Starting in January 2016, when I came back to the office after Christmas break to find a voice mail message from my oncologist saying a “benchmark” chest CT scan had revealed masses in the lining of my lungs. CT scans can be wrong, I thought, WebMD says so.

Then came the PET scan. And the waiting—which turned out to be standard throughout this journey. Waiting and more waiting. I paced outside the clinic for two hours, waiting to see the oncologist. Finally, in that freezing exam room, she uttered the words “ovarian cancer.”

The first of many memories. Surgery to remove my female body parts. Losing my hair—twice. Chemo, remission, progression, chemo, remission, progression. Round and round went the merry-go-round. And now I’m in a Phase I clinical trial with all the side effects and all the uncertainty.

But I also sifted through the memories for the gold nuggets. The birth of a grandchild. A 35th wedding anniversary spent in Costa Rica. Christmases. Birthdays. Spring days. Hummingbirds. Peanut butter toast. Writing stories.

I discovered life is still good. That I can have cancer and still hang on to my faith. That God is still good and I’m still here.

Why? To write this book? Maybe. It’s a universal story to which readers will relate. We all have loved ones we’re afraid of losing—regardless of the cause. Most of us will reach a point where we have to concede that time is, in fact, finite. That we are not immortal. Perhaps reading this story will provoke thought and make the conversations that follow easier in some small way.

Link to the rest at Writers Digest